Thursday 26 April 2018

Tony Ward: Brawn more likely to defeat brain in French civil war

RC Toulon's French centre Mathieu Bastareaud
RC Toulon's French centre Mathieu Bastareaud
Toulon captain Carl Hayman has been at pains to point out that his side have long consigned the image of galactico mercenaries to history
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

For the seventh time in 20 European finals two clubs from the one country go head to head. Is it a good thing? It's certainly a hard sell.

Today's Twickenham showdown between Toulon and Clermont Auvergne marks the first time the same two clubs have met again on the biggest stage, and the fifth that two French teams have reached the decider.

When France's finest last met in the final, an almost capacity Aviva Stadium crowd (50,148) turned up, in support of the occasion as much as anything.

Bearing in mind only half that number turned up in the old Lansdowne for Toulouse (including Trevor Brennan) against Perpignan ten years before, it reflects how much the tournament - despite all the political shenanigans of the last couple of years - has captured the public imagination.

The new administration will do very well to get 50,000 at Twickenham today - they have been unlucky with the last-day scenario. Had Leinster - or maybe Saracens - made it through to today's finale, I doubt a spare ticket could be had for love or money.

Just as last year's Cardiff final marked the end of the road for Jonny Wilkinson, today's attempt at a three-in-a-row is the last hurrah for World Cup winners Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams as well as Toulon captain Carl Hayman.

Hayman has been at pains to point out that Toulon have long consigned the image of galactico mercenaries to history.

And while the principle of Mourad Boudjellal's millions buying success and creating a most unfair playing field stinks, the manner in which so many world-class stars have bought into the region and the passionate fan-base speaks volumes for coach Bernard Laporte.

It is probably enough to create history and become the first club to put together a hat-trick of European titles.

One thing's for sure: if Clermont forwards coach Jono Gibbes is hoping to win a fourth European title on the back of three with Leinster, then Les Jaunards are sure going to have to play out of their skins.

Owner Boudjellal described the Lansdowne Road win as "a hold-up"- Clermont dominated large tracts of that game before losing 16-15 thanks to the sucker punch of Delon Armitage's try.

Boudjellal's assessment tallies with my general recollection, although I particularly noted the huge level of intensity and physicality on display.

There have been changes in personnel since that game, but the formula under Laporte remains essentially the same with Steffan Armitage (restored to the starting XV today after coming off the bench in the semi-final win over Leinster) and 2013 man of the match Mathieu Bastareaud the key pieces in the Toulon turnover strategy.

Chris Masoe and Juan Smith will also play their part in this area.

One thing I cannot comprehend about Laporte is the trust he has put in Freddie Michalak - and at last he has left the enigmatic out-half on the bench, with Matt Giteau switching from No 12 to No 10.

At least Toulon have managed to replace Wilkinson in one sense: Leigh Halfpenny has made the goalkicking transition seamless but there is still a game-running void.

Clermont are forever the bridesmaids of French rugby (bar one long overdue Top 14 success in 2010 under Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt), but have on the evidence of their knockout victories over Northampton and Sarries got the bit between their teeth this time.

To lose again today would be a huge blow.


If it is a typically all-French war of attrition (which I fear it will be, with the forecast rain and wind not helping) there will be only one outcome, and the historic hat-trick will be complete.

A repeat of the Northampton tour de force looks a bridge too far for Clermont, but in Morgan Parra the potential is there for brain to outsmart brawn.

Whereas Leinster as currently constituted lack the wherewithal to go around the Toulon pillars, Clermont have it, and they will - weather and quality of ball allowing, of course.

For all the wrong reasons when scoring the game-turning try in 2013, Delon Armitage, created one of the abiding images of European Cup rugby with his sickening wave to the chasing Brock James. In that moment the most begrudged club became the most hated.

Expect that best-forgotten moment to have figured large on the Clermont agenda this past week.

Enough to turn it around? I really hope so but fear not.

Verdict: Toulon

Clermont Auvergne - N Abendanon; N Nakaitaci, J Davies, W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; V Debaty, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, S Vahaamahina, J Bonnaire, D Chouly (capt), F Lee. Reps: J Ulugia, T Domingo, C Ric, J Pierre, J Bardy, L Radoslavjevic, C Lopez, A Rougerie.

Toulon - L Halfpenny; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, J M Hernandez, B Habana; M Giteau, S Tillous-Borde; X Chiocci, G Guirado, C Hayman (capt), B Botha, A Williams, J Smith, S Armitage, C Masoe. Reps: J-C Orioli, A Menini, L Chilachava, J M Fernandez Lobbe, V Bruni, R Wulf, F Michalak, R Taofifenua.

Ref - N Owens (Wales).

Clermont Auvergne v Toulon

Live, Sky Sports 3, 5.0

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